Plant ‘cries’: Recalling Jagadish Chandra Bose
Late last month, a group of researchers from Tel Aviv University in Israel reported that they had been able to pick up distress noises made by plants. The researchers said these plants had been making very distinct, high-pitched sounds in the ultrasonic range when faced with some kind of stress, like when they were in need of water.
This was the first time that plants had been caught making any kind of noise, and the breakthrough research findings made global headlines. But many Indians just had a sense of déjà vu. Several previous generations of Indians had grown up hearing that Jagadish Chandra Bose had shown, more than a century ago, that plants experienced sensations and were able to feel pleasure and pain just like animals. Children were often advised not to pluck leaves, flowers or twigs because that could cause pain to the plants or trees. The discovery that plants ‘cry’ in distress, therefore, did not come as much of a surprise to them. It seemed just a logical extension of J C Bose’s work.
Bose might not be a very familiar name to the current generation, but he is a colossal figure of Indian science. A physicist-turned-biologist, Bose, who lived between 1858 and 1937, made pioneering contributions in both the fields and was the first Indian to have made a powerful impact on modern science, much before Srinivasa Ramanujan, C V Raman, or Satyendra Nath Bose, a student of Jagadish, arrived on the scene.
J C Bose could — many believe he deservedly should — very well have been India’s first Nobel Prize winner, ahead of his life-long friend and confidant Rabindranath Tagore, with whom he used to have a prolific, and often poetic, correspondence.
Jagadish Chandra Bose is remembered for two things — his work on wireless transmission of signals, and on the physiology of plants. He is also credited as one of the first contributors to solid state physics. Sir Neville Mott, Nobel Prize winner in 1977, is said to have remarked that Bose was “at least 60 years ahead of his time and he had anticipated the p-type and n-type semiconductors”, according to an account in Remembering J C Bose, a 2009 publication by D P Sen Gupta, M H Engineer and V A Shepherd.
Bose is widely believed to be the first one to generate electromagnetic signals in the microwave range. In 1895, just a year after he began his active research, he demonstrated, before an audience in Kolkata, how microwaves could be used, wirelessly, to ring an electric bell on the other side of a building. He published as many as 12 papers on radio waves in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, and many more in some other prestigious journals, as reported in the book Jagadis Chandra Bose and the Indian Response to Western Science, by Subrata Dasgupta. He lectured on his work at some highly publicised scientific gatherings in Europe, in the presence of some of the leading scientists of the day. He was the first one to come up with radio receivers, which enabled wireless telegraphy.
And yet, Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian scientist who carried out the first transmission of signals across the Atlantic in 1901, is recognised as the sole inventor of the radio. Marconi, along with another colleague, was awarded the 1909 Nobel Prize for work that Bose is known to have accomplished earlier.
It was not just bias, but as several accounts put it, a reluctance on Bose’s part to obtain patents for his work, that deprived him of the Nobel. As mentioned in the publication Remembering J C Bose, he wrote to Tagore about being approached by a big businessman in Europe with the offer to get his work patented. Bose not just rejected the offer, he felt disgusted at the idea of making money from science. “If only Tagore would witness the country’s (England’s) greed for money,” Bose wrote to Tagore. “What a dreadful, all-consuming disease it was”.
His study of plants
Bose, rather abruptly, changed tack in the initial years of the 20th century and began to focus his attention on plants. But as Professor A S Raghavendra from the University of Hyderabad explained, Bose’s work was not as disjoined as it seems.
“J C Bose was extremely talented at picking electric signals. The other thing he was extremely creative at was making instruments. Bose was working with rudimentary facilities and, yet, was able to build some remarkably sensitive instruments. He used these instruments to try and detect the faintest signals from the plants. He was carrying over his skills from physics to probe the world of biology,” Raghavendra, a former J C Bose National Fellow, who has written extensively on Bose’s work, told The Indian Express.
“His (Bose’s) contributions to the communication systems in biology as well as physics are amazing. He devoted strong attention to studies on the biology of movements, feelings and nervous system. The word ‘feelings’ was used for plants, but clearly this is a matter of semantics; plants react both chemically and physically to touch, but to use the word ‘feeling’ or ‘sensation’ as we know it is quite different. The simple experiments of Bose revealed a high degree of similarity in the responses of plant and animal tissues to external stimuli. This principle was amply demonstrated later by biophysicists, using highly sophisticated instruments,” Raghavendra wrote in a 2010 paper.
In a way, Bose was possibly the world’s first biophysicist. But some of his work became controversial as well, particularly when he claimed that not just plants, even inanimate inorganic matter could respond to stimulus, and that there was actually no sharp demarcation between living and non-living worlds. Such “mental leaps” have sometimes been attributed to Bose’s “deep convictions in Indian philosophy” and his “faith in universalism”. Bose regarded plants to be the “intermediates in a continuum that extended between animals and the non-living materials”, according to the authors of Remembering J C Bose.
His work on plants, too, was also not easily digested. Bose himself records the opposition he faced. In a letter to Tagore, he mentioned a lecture he was delivering in Europe. “When I commented during my lecture at the Royal Society that plants which come between the living and the non-living will provide similar response, (John) Burden Sanderson (a leading physiologist of his time) told me that he had worked all his life with plants. Only mimosa (touch-me-not) responds to touch. That ordinary plants should give electrical response is simply impossible. It cannot be”.
Over the years, much of Bose’s work has been confirmed, though his genius is not always acknowledged. “He was much ahead of his times, no doubt. Many of his contemporaries did not fully understand him,” Raghavendra said, adding that the recent discovery of distress noise from plants could lead to some exciting research in the field. “We cannot lose sight of the fact that it was Bose who started it all”.